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The end of faith, part one

Last week, in response to the infernal book meme, I mentioned that I had recently finished reading Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, which I called a “delightful and infuriating book.” Some of you have been curious about this remark, and so, as a public service to all three of you, today I’ll excerpt from the book one of the many passages I admire.

Harris is a scathing critic of Islamic fundamentalism, but unlike many scathing critics of Islamic fundamentalism, he is scathing critic of all forms of religious fundamentalism.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Eric Rudolph, George W. Bush – this one’s for you:

Out of deference to some rather poorly specified tenets of Christian doctrine (after all, nothing in the Bible suggests that killing human embryos, or even human fetuses, is the equivalent of killing a human being), the U.S. House of Representatives voted effectively to ban embryonic stem-cell research on February 27, 2003.

No rational approach to ethics would have led us to such an impasse. Our present policy on human stem cells has been shaped by beliefs that are divorced from every reasonable intuition we might form about the possible experience of living systems.  In neurological terms, we surely visit more suffering upon this earth by killing a fly than by killing a human blastocyst, to say nothing of a human zygote (flies, after all, have 100,000 cells in their brains alone).  Of course, the point at which we fully acquire our humanity, and our capacity to suffer, remains an open question.  But anyone who would dogmatically insist that these traits must arise coincident with the moment of conception has nothing to contribute, apart from his ignorance, to this debate.  Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical equivalent of a flat-earth society.  Our discourse on the subject should reflect this.  In this area of public policy alone, the accommodations that we have made to faith will do nothing but enshrine a perfect immensity of human suffering for decades to come.

But the tendrils of unreason creep further.  President Bush recently decided to cut off funding to any overseas family-planning group that provides information on abortion.  According to the New York Times, this “has effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it in 13 others, including some with the world’s highest rates of AIDS infection.” Under the influence of Christian notions of the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage, the U.S. government has required that one-third of its AIDS prevention funds allocated to Africa be squandered on teaching abstinence rather than condom use.  It is no exaggeration to say that millions could die as a direct result of this single efflorescence of religious dogmatism.  As Nicholas Kristof points out, “sex kills, and so does this kind of blushing prudishness.”

And yet, even those who see the problem in all its horror find it impossible to criticize faith itself.  Take Kristof as an example: in the very act of exposing the medievalism that prevails in the U.S. government, and its likely consequences abroad, he goes on to chastise anyone who would demand that the faithful be held fully accountable for their beliefs:

I tend to disagree with evangelicals on almost everything, and I see no problem with aggressively pointing out the dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence.  For example, evangelicals’ discomfort with condoms and sex education has led the administration to policies that are likely to lead to more people dying of AIDS at home and abroad, not to mention more pregnancies and abortions.

But liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself.  Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable.  And liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama, and more interest in reading the Upanishads than in reading the Book of Revelation.

This is reason in ruins.  Kristof condemns the “dismal consequences” of faith while honoring their cause.  It is true that the rules of civil discourse currently demand that Reason wear a veil whenever she ventures out in public.  But the rules of civil discourse must change.

Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering.  Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.).  And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc.).  This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics.  It is time we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong.

I don’t love every last word of this – for instance, the “open question” of when we “fully acquire our humanity” is too important to be relegated to an aside, and the implicit link between “full humanity” and “capacity to suffer” involves a form of question-begging.  But I resonate in sympathy to most of these words on the so-called “culture of life,” and you’ve gotta love the righteous rebuke to Kristof at one of his most odiously Kristoffian moments, chastising us liberals for not being more interested in Revelation (and, one presumes, the Left Behind series as well).

I’ll be back tomorrow with a critique of the one aspect of Mr. Harris’s argument that is (strange but true) not secular enough.  In the meantime, I hope I haven’t exceeded the “fair use” of his book here.  So, as they say in U.S. Code Title 17 §107, go and read the whole thing.

Posted by on 04/19 at 07:31 AM
  1. I read the first ten pages of TEOF on Harris’ web site several months ago, and while I (as an agnostic) couldn’t find much to disagree with, I wondered whether the rest of the book contained any practical recommendations for changing the hearts and minds of 90+% of the world’s population. As someone who experienced a violent reaction against evangelical Christianity years ago in high school, I sympathized well with his sentiments, but the excerpt I read struck me as little more than the academic equivalent of a Slayer album. Part of me would love to stridently repudiate religion as often as possible, but I can’t see that strategy getting me (or liberals) very far.

    Posted by  on  04/19  at  09:50 AM
  2. Michael, I started that book and loathed it so much my wife made me get rid of it as she was afraid I would obsess too much over it. Here’s why:

    It is important to distinguish between a political movement that hides behind the skirts of its priests (such as the activism of Falwell/Robertson, et al) and devout religious observance (such as, say, the Franciscan Order in the Catholic Church). The line is not clearcut, but it is also not that difficult to perceive in most cases.

    To make this distinction clear, I proposed the phrase “Christianist” to describe American political activists like Falwell or Rudolph. It appears that my coinage may have caught on.

    With politics and religion separated, at least conceptually, the issues, at least within American civil discourse, become as clear as they were for the Founders:

    Anyone has the right to believe or not believe whatever they want about religion. No one has the right to compel religious beliefs upon anyone else.

    The End.

    Harris’ book picks an unnecessary and unwinnable fight. The issue is not religious belief, as Harris asserts, but the exploitation of religious belief for political power. The former is a fool’s errand, the latter describes perhaps the most ominous American political problem today. And it’s an argument that liberals and Democrats will always win in the US, once they get hip to what is really going on.

    Posted by tristero  on  04/19  at  10:12 AM
  3. The Reason Magazine review of Harris was quite scathing, for reasons that are pretty good:

    http://www.reason.com/0501/cr.cl.among.shtml

    Posted by T. V.  on  04/19  at  11:02 AM
  4. In the 80s liberal and centrist churches fled in a panic from the supposed fundamentalist onslaught the same way the Democratic leadership did from Reagan.  I still don’t understand it, and we’re going to be paying for it the rest of my natural life and beyond.

    In a Nick Kristof world it is only those liberal churches which have the standing to front a challenge to the equation of fundamentalism with Christianity.  Until it’s popularly understood that the politicization of religion is unfair to other people of faith and not just secular liberal humanists, that will continue.

    Posted by Doghouse Riley  on  04/19  at  11:12 AM
  5. Sam Harris’ website has the following quote:

    “A must read for all rational people.”

    —Alan Dershowitz

    ICK!

    Posted by  on  04/19  at  11:47 AM
  6. ..and now we know why Dershowitz supported it: Chomsky smearing!  Come on e’erbody, let’s bash that ol’ Noam..

    “Harris’ tour de force demonstrates how faith—blind, deaf, dumb, and unreasoned—threatens our very existence. His exposé of faith-based unreason—from the religious fanaticism of Islamic suicide bombers to the secular fanaticism of Noam Chomsky—is a clarion call for reasoned debate in this age of terrorism. THE END OF FAITH shows how the perfect tyranny of religious and secular totalitarianism demonizes imperfect democracies such as the United States and Israel. A must read for all rational people.”

    —Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard and author of America on Trial.

    Sorry, makes me want to keep as far away as possible from this book.

    Posted by  on  04/19  at  11:50 AM
  7. T.V. : The review is a perfect example of what I mean. It is pointless to argue about the utter evilosity of religion. It is equally pointless to argue the necessary importance of religion. There will always be religions as long as there are humans. And one’s belief (or otherwise) is entirely a personal matter, period.

    It is only when religious belief is used as a pretext for political action that it becomes an issue worth discussing beyond the adherents of a faith (or un-faith).

    9/11 was not a religious act, but a political one. A constitutional amendment outlawing marriage between two people who love each other is also a political act, not a religious one. Both are equally contemptible.

    Once our homegrown poltical operatives can no longer hide behind the fig leaf of religion, their arguments crumble. The proper tactic is to viciously attack and mock their abuse and cynical exploitation of religious belief, which is major league egregious.

    But to challenge someone’s religious beliefs is a fool’s errand, especially in this country.

    Posted by tristero  on  04/19  at  12:03 PM
  8. Now, now, even a book blurbed by Alan Dershowitz can have its merits here and there.  It’s been proven in laboratory trials.  But yes, the drive-by dismissal of Chomsky in The End of Faith is far too breezy and superficial to bother with, and the dogmatic—yes, dogmatic—insistence that all beliefs must have an evidentiary basis does not leave a bit of room (to answer DGF’s question) for any practical recommendations for changing the hearts and minds of 90+% of the world’s population.  On the contrary, as far as Harris is concerned, that 90+% should simply be shamed into recognizing Empirically Revealed and Validated Truths, one of which is that “while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.  This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths” (72).  Quite apart from the fact that this rhetorical strategy is unlikely to convince anyone of his or her own madness and derangement, one wonders whether the ancient injunction to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you is included in this dismissal.  My guess that it is; after all, it has no evidentiary basis.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/19  at  12:23 PM
  9. Michael:
    You said: “one wonders whether the ancient injunction to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you is included in this dismissal.  My guess that it is; after all, it has no evidentiary basis.”

    One can arrive at the Golden Rule by a simple symmetry argument.  If one accepts that at some basic level all people are the same, then there should not be any inequality in the way any pair of individuals treat each other.  No transcendence required.  Many societies have independently arrived at this symmetrical rule.

    Modern societies do value individuality more, and some have suggested that we need a new & updated version, dubbed the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them, consistent with your own values.

    Not quite as catchy, but more fitting a modern diverse society.

    Posted by  on  04/19  at  01:54 PM
  10. I am not a historian but I think there was a time in America when Americans would have been very aware and appalled at any politician who used religion as a tool for political gain. This time was more then a hundred years ago and the reason for this behavior was the awakening of the rational American mind.

    One major proponent of this view was one of the most popular lecturers of his day Robert Green Ingersoll. His arguments, and personal example, that a man could be moral, wise, and happy without relying on religious dogma struck a strong cord with the people of that time.

    Why this past America is so different then the one we find ourselves in today is an open question. My guess would be that the idea of the separation of church and state was a fundamental belief shared by the people of this day. More fundamental then today because the population at large was more in touch with the writings and beliefs of the founding fathers - who strongly advocated this idea.

    Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the average people of this day were beginning to open their eyes to the idea that rational thinking should play a more dominate role in the non-religious day to day decisions of life. Their openness to this rational view was probably caused by the amazing progress that they saw occurring all around them. Men like Robert Green Ingersoll were there, at this time, to make them realize that this progress was directly related to the advances that were occurring in the sciences - by way of the rational and educated human mind. His argument that this amazing progress, over just a few decades, was beyond the contribution that religion had accomplished over many centuries was irrefutable. Today this argument is just as irrefutable but you will not find a serious politician who would dare express this view.

    This unique time in American made it possible for a large group of people to insist that non-religious topics be argued rationally. It only made sense then that politics, which the majority of people accepted as different then religion, was to be argued rationally and not religiously.

    Why we went astray of this view is a question I would like to hear answered. Better yet, you can forget the answer to this question if you can answer the one about how we can again find our rational nature.

    Some Republicans like to argue how one of the great burdens of their lives is living with the politically correct society that the liberal Democrats have supposedly created. The hypocrisy of this argument, in light of their own parties politically correct teachings, is laughable. In my view one of the most offensive politically correct masks that Americans are forced to wear today is the mask of religiousity. And without a doubt the ones who designed, cut, and glued this mask to the faces of all Americans are the creaters of, and participants in, the Republican Christian Crusade.

    Jim
    http://rationaldebate.blogspot.com/

    Posted by Jim  on  04/19  at  02:43 PM
  11. Huh.  I used to be a Christian fundamentalist myself.  I went to a 4-year, liberal arts Christian University that actually made it pretty hard to be a fundamentalist because they challenged the crap out of us in many ways.  Their science department taught evolution *gasp*, which of course angers James Dobson a whole lot, considering he graduated from my same school a while back when it used to be in Pasadena (it moved to San Diego in ‘74).  I’m still very much a Christian, but I think it’s pretty obvious that if I’m now reading and laughing along with other readers of this humble blog of yours, that we’ve left fundamentalism far, far behind. 

    Which brings me to a very rad site I found recently:

    Leaving Fundamentalism

    Great stuff on there.

    Posted by Eric Lee  on  04/19  at  02:52 PM
  12. I don’t want to sound flippant here, but i think that evaluating degrees of religious orthodoxy is a lot like criticizing parenting.  I have always found it interesting that i could spend decades studying the history and philosophy of all aspects of religions surrounded by many others, and not find a department of parental studies on campuses anywhere.  Sure, buried in the social and physical sciences, some are studying aspects of parenting, from those “orthodox” views within those disciplines. 

    Harris is a lot like a scolding Dr. Spock, telling those highly rigid, rod whipping disciplinary parents that they have to lighten up, as well as telling those super permissive, never set any boundaries, give into their every desire ones to tighten it up.  We have a broad spectrum of parental behaviors, most of which we could all agree are worthy of our respect.  There are also other more harsh and extreme parents whose rules and policies and behaviors are highly suspect and, we might agree, criminal.  In this way i think religious sects, no matter what their orientation to the cosmos, also provide a spectrum of behaviors among their believers.  There are people of deep and devout spiritual grace who would never think to harm a living thing, yet in their own way fail to act to stop the system in which they live from creating great suffering.  And there will be those who passionately affix their faith to an orthodox fanatical vision that requires them to cause great harm to others whom they feel are not worthy of their respect. 

    We will no sooner give up religion as humans(tristero’s point) as we will give up parenting more humans.  It would be nice though if we put as much effort into understanding parenting as we do religion.  It might make the future a whole lot kinder and more compassionate, and maybe, just maybe, reduce the affects of the extremes.

    Posted by  on  04/19  at  06:05 PM
  13. It seems to me that an important question is - what kind of spirituality can be proposed for white settler societies that might provide the kind of holistic sense of being and zeitgeist that fundamentalist Christianity does? It’s obvious to those commenting here (and I think you Michael!) that rants against religion per se aren’t going to get to far, because while rationality is raised to religious status in that position, the only hope it seems to offer is that you’ll become an increasingly grumpy and lonely old man as you get older. In Australia where I am at the moment, it’s interesting to see the concern on the “secular white metropolitan left” at the rise of US-style fundamentalist politics, and pentecostalism. There is a peculiarly modernist sensibility that assumes that everyone should eventually wake up to the ethical superiority of secular multi-culturalism, but no real way to activate the affective dimensions of care for one’s fellow human and earth that supposedly underpins left politics. For myself, as an atheist-for-as-long-as-i-can-remember, entering spaces of spiritual practice among various communities (though not the fundies yet!) really brings home that there’s something important missing from the cultural imaginary of the left, and Harris’ quite unappealing tone is I think a fine example.

    Posted by Danny  on  04/19  at  07:16 PM
  14. Well, now, before we all dismiss TEOF as a mere rant, might it make sense to read it?  Whatever you think about the following (which is taken from the concluding pages of the book) as an argument, it’s pretty clear that it is, in fact, an argument--offered calmly and even optimistically--and not simply an angry diatribe:

    “We are bound to one another. The fact that our ethical intuitions must, in some way, supervene upon our biology does not make ethical truths reducible to biological ones. We are the final judges of what is good, just as we remain the final judges of what is logical.  And on neither front has our conversation with one another come to an end.  There need be no scheme of rewards and punishments transcending this life to justify our moral intuitions or to render them effective in guiding our behavior in the world.  The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love.  The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.

    Man is manifestly not the measure of all things.  This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name.  The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call “spiritual”.  No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. No personal God need be worshipped for us to live in awe at the beauty and immensity of creation.  No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish...”

    Posted by  on  04/19  at  10:17 PM
  15. The ending of the book Yup quotes has some eloquence but intellectually it’s a mess. I’m not sure where he gets the notion that very fact of the universe’s existence is a “mystery absolute” let alone that consciousness is central to that mystery or that consciousness per se is “the ground for any experience we might wish to call ‘spiritual’.” I think all of this is highly debatable from the point of view of factual accuracy, even if it sounds pretty.

    Danny’s point that “there’s something important missing from the cultural imaginary of the left, and Harris’ quite unappealing tone is I think a fine example” is well taken and it stems from the fundamental error on the left of setting up a false dichotomy between a “spiritual” and “secular” worldview which then degenerates into a debate as to which is superior.

    Again, the issue is so simple it’s the politcal equivalent of decent plumbing. A modern civil society must not privilege any religious viewpoint. This enables a multiplicity of views to flourish, which is in the best interest of that society.

    A member of such a society is presumed to be a member of some subset of that culture which addresses the deeper affects Danny -rightly- seeks. There is nothing in a civil society that precludes such a search. In fact, it might even encourage such striving. But it cannot establish one path as the official path.

    It is pointless to argue as Harris does, for the elimination of a personal God. But simply because Harris is wrong in no way invalidates the importance of a civil government. A government that does not privilege any particular religion does not have to be hostile to the notion of religious belief, or its absence.

    Posted by tristero  on  04/20  at  09:22 AM
  16. Anyone has the right to believe or not believe whatever they want about religion. No one has the right to compel religious beliefs upon anyone else. The End.

    Well, yes, that would be great. Now, if only many of my lefty bretheren would quit lecturing atheists like myself on how we need to go hide in the attic whenever an election rolls around so we don’t scare away all the timid churchmice from voting Democratic (and it’s never explained why all these religious moderates won’t be equally offended by the theocrats on the right). 

    That said, however, I don’t agree with this fatalism about the inevitability of religious belief. If anything in our culture were ever ripe for a tipping point, I would think religion is it. Personally speaking, I was raised with a religious mother, and while I never got into it, it was always sort of an existential knot in my gut. Then, I read Buddhist philosophers like Nagarjuna thoroughly dismantling the incoherent concept of the soul, and it was like cold water in my face. This wasn’t clever atheist wordplay over how God can’t be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent at the same time, this was calmly and clearly showing how muddled and unlikely the entire notion was. It wasn’t any longer a question of belief vs. unbelief, it made the whole idea of belief as ludicrous as the idea of a fat guy in a red suit climbing down tens of millions of chimneys on the night of Dec. 24. There is no eternal essence that is uniquely “you” that contains all your thoughts and feelings and leaves your dead body to float like a virus to either another body or off to some mysterious Other Place. This life is all there is - what a strangely liberating thought! I didn’t do an Ivan Karamazov, wailing about how “everything is permitted!” while indulging in hedonistic nihilism. I just got on with my life with a huge weight off my back.

    I don’t think there’s anything special about me that kept me from despairing over this. And I find it funny - during blasphemy trials in previous centuries, it was sometimes openly admitted that while the people involved in the case were educated and stable enough to be exposed to questioning of religious doctrines, prosecution was still necessary to keep this kind of information from the rabble, whose worldview would be torn asunder by it. I see much of the same kind of condescension today: we thoughtful types can discuss this calmly, but don’t upset Joe Redstate with this shrill crazy talk! Well, you know, maybe the fact that no one ever has the guts to broach the topic in a serious way has something to do with the popular perception of it. Maybe the fact that even liberals treat atheism as lunatic fringe material has to do with the idea that religion is supposedly here to stay. One of them, whatchamacallits, self-fulfilling prophecies.

    Like I said, I’m all for the live-and-let-worship theme; I’m not looking to kick down Ned Flanders’ door and burn the Bible in front of Rod and Todd. But when even Democrats try to jump on the biblethumping bandwagon for short-term political gain, don’t be surprised when atheists react predictably out of frustration, like Harris does (he’s admitted in interviews that he pretty much has no hope in making a difference with this book; he just felt like he had to try).

    Posted by Nullifidian  on  04/20  at  09:39 AM
  17. Nullifidian,

    You seem to have missed my point which is that “theocrats on the right” are best attacked by making it clear that they cannot use their professed religiosity to deflect criticism of their political goals.

    The substance of their beliefs is a non-issue, as that is personal. I have as many problems with what Pat Robertson believes as I do with the kind of music he prefers. Both are a matter of taste. But I have a serious problem when he tries to inflict either on the rest of us.

    So yes, I’m suggesting that everyone should keep their damn religion out of our politics and out of discussions of same. That means you, too, in this context. I couldn’t care less about what you say you believe or don’t believe. I have no interest in agreeing with or disagreeing with any points you make about the substance or lack of substance of religion. All I care about is defeating Bush and Bushism; arguing about the soul won’t help.

    It is shameless pandering to do as Bush does and wear your religion on your sleeve. But just about the worst possible response is to complain,hey, what about us catholics/atheists/buddhists? That implicitly acknowledges that religious issues are part of the political discourse. And that is not a good thing to acknowledge, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

    The most effective counter-tactic is to mock Bush’s Bible-thumping as insulting to the intelligence of the American public. But to do that you have to be clear that you are attacking him only politically.

    That is an easy thing to do, unless you are a leader or pollster in the Democratic party.

    Posted by tristero  on  04/20  at  10:14 AM
  18. Michael;

    and you’ve gotta love the righteous rebuke to Kristof at one of his most odiously Kristoffian moments, chastising us liberals for not being more interested in Revelation (and, one presumes, the Left Behind series as well).

    But one problem that liberal theologians (and scholars) have is that no one is paying attention to the Book of Revelations - or at least what the Millenialist Christians are using Revalations as.  You may think Kristof may be an ass, unaware of how his arguments frequently lead him to a destination up his own tailpipe, but he’s got valid point here.  Very few liberals and progressives come up with answers to counter the fundamentalist crap that so many people are swallowing hook, line, and sinker.  Ignoring the sweaty, wild-eyed misinterpreters of John’s ramblings doesn’t convince the normally rational people that the Nuts are nuts. 

    Carl Sagan wrote at length in the Demon-Haunted World that part of the problem of Pseudoscience is that Science is doing a poor job of getting the really uplifting and amazing wonder of Science into the public conscious-ness.  Religion, the rigorous, argumentative, philosophical religion that can be in harmony with science, is having the same problem.

    Dr. Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation is a start on arguing against the Millenialist crap.  There are also several interviews she’s given as summary.  Heck, if you ask nicely, I’ll send you the 2 hour lecture I have from her appearance at the Iowa United Methodist School for Ministry.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  10:17 AM
  19. Tristero,

    Being that I agreed twice with your point, I don’t see how you can claim I missed it. I’ve long argued for the strict separation of church and state, only to be informed by many Democrats that pandering to the faithful is necessary and desirable. My “response” is not to theocrats on the right, it’s to the Amy Sullivan/Joe Lieberman types who look to score a few points by contributing to the strawman about how atheists are immoral nihilists. I’m not interested in being anyone’s sacrificial example, so if that interferes with your political goals, I suggest you take it up with the people who are the actual problem.

    For that matter, I never got the impression that Sam Harris was setting himself up as a spokesman for the Democratic party - obviously, most atheists are going to prefer the lesser of two evils, but that doesn’t mean any of us are deluded enough to think that the Dems are going to go all USSR and make atheism official state policy. The book is primarily about religion, politics is only secondary. Not all issues can (or should) be reduced to political strategies, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

    So yes, I’m suggesting that everyone should keep their damn religion out of our politics and out of discussions of same. That means you, too, in this context. I couldn’t care less about what you say you believe or don’t believe.

    Well, beggin’ yer pardon, my man! I was simply offering up a rejoinder to your assertion that it’s futile to argue against religious belief, some food for thought, if you will; my deepest apologies for wasting your valuable time.

    Posted by Nullifidian  on  04/20  at  03:03 PM
  20. Nullifidian,

    I certainly did not mean to offend you by saying I didn’t care about your beliefs, but in this context, truly I don’t. Nor should you care what my beliefs are. That kind of discussion blurs the issue, which is very simple.

    Under the Constitution, you have the right to believe whatever you want and no one has the right to stop you or prevent you from running for office. However, the Christianists want to deny everyone but themselves these rights.

    That is the only issue that matters. Put another way, atheists, agnostics and all religious people who care about tolerance and freedom of expression are natural allies.

    I am totally on your side when it comes to church/state separation. Therefore, I am terribly confused when you bring up your own beliefs. What do they have to do with that issue?

    Regarding Sullivan/Lieberman:

    I would agree there is nothing to be gained in the medium or longterm by playing the God card. Whether the Dems can achieve any shortterm gain by Bible thumping remains to be seen. Frankly, I doubt it, and I would agree with you that it isn’t worth it in any event, because once the wall of separation comes down (it’s already been breached), we will encounter monsters.

    My point, once again, is that one gets absolutely nowhere by engaging such a discussion at the level of belief or non-belief. Whether you are an oppressed Atheist or an ignored Buddhist or a reviled Zoroastrian or a frustrated Episcopalian is not the issue. The issue is that your belief is, by specific intent of the Founders, not a relevant criteria for participation in American democracy. Period. End of story.

    Now Amy Sullivan is absolutely right when she implies that those opposed to Bush must not avoid the topic of religion and the state. She is dead wrong in concluding that that means that Democrats should thump their Bibles louder. Instead, Democrats should scream bloody murder whenever anyone, for any reason, drags religion into a political discussion. I have said so many times to her, in comments and emails.

    That church/state separation seems so hard for educated Americans to grasp these days is mind-boggling.

    Posted by tristero  on  04/20  at  03:51 PM
  21. The Harris book sounds like an updated remake of the Bertrand Russell anthology, “Why I Am Not a Christian”.  The essay’s in the book were written between 1901 and 1957.  The book also contains an appendix about the vicious attack by the Christian right that prevented Russell from teaching at CCNY in 1941.

    The more things change.....

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  05:49 PM
  22. Tristero,

    If I understand Nullifidian’s argument correctly, he (he? damn these nicks!) is essentially taking issue with the latter part of this statement:

    “So yes, I’m suggesting that everyone should keep their damn religion out of our politics and out of discussions of same.”

    I doubt either of you would disagree that religious beliefs ought not to form the basis of any public policy. But should faith or lack thereof be entirely unmentionable, like some kind of don’t ask don’t tell policy?

    It seems to me that the Right has made much hay over the (real or perceived) supression of “faith talk” in the public sphere. And this message seems to resonate with a lot of people. Trying to keep the two separate is probably as futile as talking someone out of their religion.

    What the Democrats should do is make it quite clear that their personal religious belief will not be used to craft policy; only rational argument will do. And they should be prepared to call out their opponents when they see this principle violated.

    But they should not have to be afraid to mention their faith, particularly if they feel it deeply informs their philosophy or character, just as they would any other relevant life experience.

    Posted by  on  04/20  at  08:26 PM
  23. Eric:

    “But should faith or lack thereof be entirely unmentionable, like some kind of don’t ask don’t tell policy?”

    The short answer is either yes, or it’s no. Obviously, it depends. The relevant policy issue is exactly as you describe it: personal religious belief cannot be used to craft policy.

    The notion that there is a suppression of faith talk in the public sphere is obviously insane, and was so even before the recent pandering. The last I checked, Sunday morning was overrun with preachers and the radio channels are chockablock with God Talk (mostly of the evangelical Christian variety, although I’m sure somewhere there’s a Hasidic radio show).  Whenever some amazing thing happens - like the “discovery” of John’s tomb or a stain in Chicago looks like the Madonna - the media jumps all over it - and, I might add, gives short shrift to the skeptics.

    No one’s saying don’t mention one’s faith, but it is not “as an atheist” or “as a Christian” that one has an opinion on separation of church and state. It is only as a politcal actor -ie, as an American citizen - that such an opinion has meaning. Therefore Nullifidian’s profession of (non) faith is besides the point. In fact, he contradicts himself by bringing up his viewpoint in this context.

    To be clear, it is in the present discussion, and similar ones, that I truly don’t care what anyone believes. All faith attitudes are equal and don’t confer any special status or insight.

    In other discussions, say, on the nature of consciousness and transcendence, Nullifidian’s insights “as an atheist” would be quite relevant, indeed enormously important. As they would in any discussion about religion.

    But this is not about religion but rather only about whether the state should privilege any religion. To say “as an atheist, I believe in church/state separation” is to imply that there is something about atheism that supports this position while there’s something about non-atheism that doesn’t. That’s nonsense. One’s particular religious beliefs have nothing to do with this issue. Only one’s particular desire for power does.

    I am suggesting that if you look at the phrase, “As a Christian, I must insist that laws reflect my faith,” it is a grave mistake to interpret that as a statement of religious belief. It is a political statement hiding behind the skirts of religiosity. By seeing this as a political statement, the riposte is obvious: “Who cares? The law cannot reflect Christian values merely because they are Christian. If you must live in a country with a state-supported religion, move to Iceland.”

    Posted by tristero  on  04/21  at  12:09 PM

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